By Dan Shelley
RTDNA President and CEO
An alarming trend is threatening the public’s ability to know what’s happening in their communities. And I don’t mean the years-long withering of the local newspaper business in cities and towns across the country.
Rather, this hazard is happening specifically in small-town America – not caused by declining circulation, or ad sales, or the once lucrative classified advertising sector that effectively died many years ago.
This seems new. Different. Sinister.
So far in 2023, law enforcement in some rural areas of the United States have taken dangerous steps to try to stifle local news coverage either they don’t like or find embarrassing, or, in some cases, exposes malfeasance.
In March of this year, the McCurtain County, Okla., sheriff and three other public officials were caught on tape discussing hiring hitmen to kill the publisher of the local paper and the publisher’s son, a reporter for the newspaper. The officials also lamented on the recording the fact they couldn’t lynch Black people in today’s society. (The publisher and his son are white.)
Gov. Kevin Stitt called immediately for the sheriff to be removed from office, but the state’s attorney general and the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation said there were no state laws allowing for such expulsion.
In August, police in tiny Marion, Kan., raided the office of the Marion County Record newspaper and the home of the publisher and his elderly mother, on the questionable pretense that a Record reporter had illegally accessed the publicly available driving record of a local business owner. Computers, cell phones and records that included unpublished journalistic work were seized.
The day after the raids, the publisher’s mother dropped dead – due to anxiety caused by police, the publisher said. A few days after that, prosecutors abruptly ended the investigation and returned all of the paper’s property, after the publisher got a Kansas City attorney with a long record of defending the First Amendment’s guarantee of press freedom.
There were two troubling incidents in October.
In Altmore, Ala., law enforcement arrested the local newspaper publisher and one of her reporters for reporting on grand jury testimony in an investigation into allegations the local school board had misused federal coronavirus relief funds. The prosecutor claimed making grand jury proceedings public is illegal. Apparently, he’d never heard of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Pentagon Papers case, which held that so long as a journalist doesn’t obtain classified or otherwise secret government documents illegally, he or she is free to publish whatever they receive.
Following an uproar from press freedom groups, including RTDNA, the prosecutor doubled down and charged the paper’s publisher with illegally using her position as a school board member to solicit the district for advertising dollars. First, that’s part of what publishers do, solicit advertising; second, Alabama law exempts “routine” business transactions from the law on which the prosecutor relied in the second set of charges.
Also last month, officials in Calumet City, Ill.,, a suburb of about 36,000 outside Chicago, issued municipal citations to a reporter for the hyperlocal Daily Southtown website and newspaper for the heinous crime of contacting city officials seeking information about recent flooding in the community. Essentially, the citations claim the reporter simply asked too many questions. After hearing about the First Amendment from the paper’s attorney, the city prosecutor withdrew the citations.
There’s no indication whatsoever that these four instances are in any way officially connected. I’m not aware of any secret network of local public officials from small communities in different parts of the country that conspires to suppress press freedom and, more important, the public’s need to know what’s happening where they live.
Rather, I think this is but one part of a larger torment on the United States in which politicians and public officials of all political parties and ideologies feel emboldened to take dramatic action against journalists who are just doing their jobs.
Why? Because a former president said journalists were “the enemy of the people,” a de facto permission slip for public officials and others to go after journalists. Because that contributed to an erosion of trust in national journalism, to be sure, but now even local journalism to some degree. Because our nation hasn’t been this divided in many decades.
But there are antidotes: More and better journalism. Persistence. Fighting back, as the journalists in Oklahoma, Kansas, Alabama and Illinois are doing.
Even if these assaults on American journalism – a bedrock of our nation’s constitutional republic – aren’t formally intertwined, they are rooted in a common misbelief shared by too many public officials: They believe they don’t have to follow the constitution, statutes and the decades of case law firmly establishing the right of journalists to serve their viewers, listeners and readers.
Author Ian Fleming, who birthed James Bond, wrote something in his novel Goldfinger that is both relevant to this troubling time in American journalism and the need for journalists to persist and persevere:
“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”